Visual Anthropology Review

On Another Playground: Japanese Popular Culture in America Produced by Keiko Ikeda; DVD designed and edited by David Plath


2008 , 160 minutes, color. Distributed by the Asian Educational Media Service, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801 ,

Materials for this DVD come from a 2003 conference entitled “Globalization and Japanese Culture.” This two-day gathering was hosted by the American Studies Program at Doshisha University in Kyoto and offered in conjunction with an exhibition, “Japan in the United States.” Keiko Ikeda, the conference's convener and film's inspiration, wants to help Japanese people understand better how America reacts to Japanese popular culture and the fate of Japanese things once they cross the Pacific. In her introductory comments, “Eastward Across the Pacific Ocean,” she emphasizes the need to take a more careful look at how “people meet in the new international playground” of popular culture.

The video presents three keynote lectures. Each speaker is a well-respected American anthropologist specializing in Japanese society and culture. Christine Yano, Theodore Bestor, and William Kelly each take a look at how Japanese pop culture has come to infuse itself within mainstream American culture, especially within entertainment scapes. Yano (University of Hawai'i) speaks on “Kitty Does Dallas: The Marketing and Consumption of Japanese Cute,” in which she elaborates on the polysemantic features of the internationally popular Hello Kitty image and paraphernalia. Bestor (Harvard) reviews the popularity of sushi in the context of food culture in his talk: “Sushi and the Westernization of Japan.” Finally, Kelly (Yale) tackles the international popularity of professional baseball in “Nomo, Ichiro, Matsui: Japan Enters the Major Leagues.” Each lecture is roughly 50 minutes and organized into 7–9 sections for quick reference. I would have enjoyed one last bookend section, perhaps by Keiko Ikeda, that could have offered a brief overview summary or even a series of questions for future study.

Given the video's theme and topics, this DVD makes an important contribution to central contemporary anthropological debates on globalization. The lectures are very clear. They do a wonderful job of lending images to discussions on problematic cross-cultural translations as well as the range of meanings given to the marketing and consumption of products and ideas within a capitalist context. Each lecture draws upon Arjun Appadurai's theory of “scapes” as central to realizing a world made up of multidimensional flows of information and influence, and to understand the dynamics of globalization theory and mechanics (Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, University of Minnesota Press, 1996). Each presentation offers ample and valuable historical context for changes seen in the shape, appearance, and use of products. All three lecturers offer insightful and provocative views of pop culture's dynamic impact on Japan and the United States, illustrating that its international flows (here toys, food, and sports) are likely to cause some change in both the United States and Japan—but not as the terms Japanization or Americanization might imply. Viewers will hear that the migration of physical forms provokes alternative local constructions of meaning and significance, whether we are talking about Hello Kitty, peanut-butter-and-jelly sushi, or Mr. Baseball. The fear of cross-cultural homogeneity is well balanced with instances of local identities, cultural complexity, and social diversity.

Visual anthropology instructors and students will be very pleased to have such a well-illustrated set of presentations, when viewers can see so much visual evidence of the video's central points. All three lectures are accompanied by PowerPoint slide shows, well stocked with images, newspaper headlines and clips, advertisements, as well as the products. On occasion, video clips (Yano, Kelly) and musical interludes (Yano, Bestor) are incorporated in the lecture. The transformation of the “looks” of both products (Hello Kitty artifacts) and events (a baseball game) is vital to understanding the reformulation of meaning and significance in migrations from Japan to the United States. As just one example, Bill Kelly shows film posters for the feature film Mr. Baseball (1992) with inverted characters—the American baseball star (Tom Selleck) featured in the U.S. version and the team's Japanese coach (Ken Takakura) featured in the poster used in Japan. Instructors might consider using this DVD in conjunction with Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the West (Roland Kelts, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and for some reciprocal materials, Re-Made in Japan—Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a Changing Society (Joseph J. Tobin, ed., Yale University Press, 1992) and such videotapes as The Japanese Version (1991) and The Colonel Comes to Japan (1981).

This DVD presents challenges regarding its production and use. More specifically, I am referring to the difficulties of filming lectures and of transforming three speech events (podium-based illustrated lectures) into a film event, available in DVD format for private and semipublic (classrooms) exhibition. The filmmakers worked with a three-camera setup to facilitate a creative and lively rendering of discussions between lecturers and audience members, anticipating locations for visually enhancing inserts. While camera operators made sure they had an abundance of audience reaction shots from packed lecture halls, often the affirmative nods, smiles, and occasional laughter seemed to be out of sync with the speaker's simultaneous comments. I am also not sure speakers always appreciated some of the low-angle extreme facial close-ups. The editors have worked very hard to clean up uneven sound levels and distracting speech habits of the lecturers by cutting out unnecessary pauses and paralinguistic utterances. However, the results of such good intentions can be distracting.

The use of this film in classroom contexts may present another challenge. Given the DVD's length, my preference would be for screening individual lectures on separate occasions that correlate with different syllabus topics. Showing this DVD at one time would create an overload of detailed information. But students will undeniably be attracted to the familiar contents of this DVD and impressed with its depth and clarity of presentation. Important lessons are offered for how visual features of everyday life can be studied and, in turn, contribute to a strong theoretical analysis of social culture. On Another Playground is loaded with fascinating and useful information, giving us a great deal to consider about the emerging significance of international pop culture.